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  • Writer's pictureCristina Ferrero Castaño

First global agreement on the ethics of artificial intelligence

This ethical framework defines common values and principles that will ensure a healthy development of this technology. All individuals should be able to access or even delete their data records and it explicitly prohibits the use of artificial intelligence systems for social rating and mass surveillance.

Juan Carlos Ruiz


December 6, 2021

This landmark text setting out common values and principles that will guide the building of the legal infrastructure needed to ensure the healthy development of artificial intelligence has been endorsed by all 193 UNESCO member states.

Artificial intelligence is ubiquitous, making many of our daily routines a reality and delivering remarkable results in niche areas such as cancer detection and building inclusive environments for people with other abilities. It can also help combat problems such as climate change, world hunger and poverty reduction.

But this technology poses unprecedented challenges. For example, there is an increase in gender and ethnic bias, significant threats to privacy or dangers of mass surveillance. Until now, there have been no universal standards to address these problems.

"The world needs rules for artificial intelligence to benefit humanity. The recommendation on the ethics of artificial intelligence is an important response. It establishes the first global normative framework, while giving States the responsibility to implement it at their level. UNESCO will support its 193 Member States in its implementation and will ask them to report regularly on their progress and practices," said Audray Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO.

The content of the recommendation

The recommendation ensures that digital transformations promote human rights and contribute to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals, addressing issues of transparency, accountability and privacy, with action-oriented policy chapters on data governance, education, culture, labour, healthcare and the economy.

Data protection

It also calls for action beyond what technology companies and governments are doing to guarantee individuals greater protection by ensuring transparency, empowerment and control of their personal data. It says that all individuals should be able to access or even delete their personal data records. It also includes actions to improve data protection and the individual's knowledge and right to control their own data. On the other hand, it increases the ability of regulators around the world to enforce it.

Banning social bookmarking and mass surveillance

The agreement also explicitly prohibits the use of artificial intelligence systems for social rating and mass surveillance. Such technologies are highly invasive, violate human rights and fundamental freedoms and are widely used.

It also lays the foundations for tools that will assist their implementation and assess the impact of these systems on people, society and the environment. The readiness assessment methodology helps Member States to assess their readiness in terms of legal and technical infrastructure. It stresses that methods should be favoured to help ensure that artificial intelligence becomes a more prominent tool in combating climate change and addressing environmental problems.

“Las decisiones que afectan a millones de personas deben ser justas, transparentes y contestables. Estas nuevas tecnologías deben ayudarnos a afrontar los principales retos de nuestro mundo actual, como el aumento de las desigualdades y la crisis medioambiental, y no profundizar en ellos”, declaró Gabriela Ramos, subdirectora general de Ciencias Sociales y Humanas de la UNESCO.

"Decisions that affect millions of people must be fair, transparent and accountable. These new technologies must help us address, not deepen, the major challenges of our world today, such as growing inequalities and the environmental crisis," said Gabriela Ramos, Assistant Director-General for Social and Human Sciences at UNESCO.

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